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Chemistry and Cannabis: A Tour of Its Active Compounds

While there has been controversy about using cannabis to treat health conditions, there is growing scientific acceptance that the plant has significant medicinal value. Phytocannabinoids are the name given to cannabinoids of a plant-based nature.

These substances are unique to cannabis and occur in all varieties. Although THC is the well-known phytocannabinoid that is responsible for most of the psychotropic effect of cannabis, other phytocannabinoids exert their own profound effects.

Phytocannabinoids are different from endocannabinoids, but they interact with that internal body system and also upon related non-cannabinoid systems in a similar manner. Unlike endocannabinoids, the phytocannabinoid system works all over the body all of the time it is present—so why are phytocannabinoids never lethal?

Some feel it is because there are no endocannabinoid receptors in the brainstem, but this doesn’t explain why synthetic drugs that block or enhance the endocannabinoid system have killed and caused severe psychiatric, cardiac, and brain damage. More likely, the complexity of this system matches up well with the complexity of our own system, and co-evolution of both systems has positively affected the genomes of each.

Cannabidiol (CBD) was among the first of the phytocannabinoids discovered and was incorrectly thought to be a non-active cannabinoid because researchers were looking for the psychoactive aspect of the plant. Not only did CBD lack this activity, but it also turned out to not be directly active on CB1 or CB2 receptors when they were discovered over sixty years later.


Instead, CBD works indirectly, stimulating the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system by blocking the FAAH enzyme responsible for breaking down anandamide. When more anandamide is present, there is greater CB1 activation and a more vital endocannabinoid system

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